In 1859 Charles Dickens released “A Tale of Two Cities”, which featured one of the most famous opening lines in literary history:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
While Dickens penned the line about life in London and Paris during the 1775 French Revolution, a modern sports fan can be forgiven for applying it to two teams in the 2013 American League East.
For Boston, it was clearly the best of times, with the Red Sox enjoying a startling turnaround from the AL East basement to a 97-win, World Series championship season.
For Toronto, it was definitely the worst of times. In a season in which the Jays were supposed to be contenders, they flopped spectacularly, finishing dead last in the division.
After what happened last year, it may be difficult to look a Jays fan in the eye and tell them that better times are ahead. But rest assured that I’m here to tell you that there indeed is hope, and to find it you don’t have to look any further than the Red Sox themselves.
The 2012 Red Sox were very much like the 2013 Blue Jays. Both teams had a new manager, high priced talent, and sky high expectations, and both teams flopped sensationally. So how did this year’s Red Sox team turn things around and reach baseball’s penthouse? And can the Jays follow suit? Yes they can, because the two clubs might be much more alike than you think.
Point 1 – The Offensive Core
Other players have come and gone, but I think it’s fair to say that the offensive core of the Boston Red Sox boiils down to three players: David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury. In 2012, the trio combined to play only 305 games (Pedroia 141, Ortiz, 90, Ellsbury 74), resulting in a whopping 181 man games lost to injury.
Last season, all three were relatively healthy, combing to play 431 games (Pedroia 160, Ortiz 137, Ellsbury 134), or an additional 126 games over 2012. Think about that – that is almost the equivalent of adding one full season of games by an elite offensive player. Considering that, is it really that surprising that Boston went worst-to-first?
Though the Jays were well equipped with many offensive weapons, the top-3 are definitely Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, and Edwin Encarnacion. Like Boston in 2012, Toronto’s core missed a lot of games last summer – a total of 133 (Bautista missed 44, EE 20, and Reyes 69). If you want to be so inclined as to add Colby Rasmus into the core, that number rises to 177 games missed.
Staying healthy is obviously easier said than done, especially since Reyes and Bautista appear to be injury prone, but getting an additional 80-100 games out of that trio will go a long way to boosting the Jays chances.
Point 2 – The True Ace
Over the past several seasons, Jon Lester has developed into the staff ace of the Red Sox rotation, never more so than in 2013. But in 2012 Lester regressed badly from his prior form:
2011: 15 – 9, 3.47 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.5 K/9
2012: 9 – 14, 4.82 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 7.3 K/9
A team often goes the way of its ace, and as Lester struggled, so did Boston. Of course, his return to form in 2013 was a major reason they won the World Series.
R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young for the Mets in 2012, and came to Toronto as a legitimate ace expected to lead Toronto in most pitching categories. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as Dickey experienced a very Lester-like regression:
2012: 20 – 6, 2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 8.9 K/9
2013: 14 – 13, 4.21 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 7.1 K/9
Dickey doesn’t need to necessarily return to his 2012 form to make the Jays a much better team – anything close to that will be a massive improvement.
Point 3 – The #2 Man
Of course, more than just a true ace is required for a championship team – a fear inspiring 1/2 combination is just as important. Think Verlander / Scherzer, Wainwright / Wacha, or even the Lincecum / Cain, Schilling / Johnson, or Clemens / Pettitte combo’s from years past.
In 2012 Boston thought they had such a combination with the aforementioned Lester and the consistently strong Josh Beckett. Beckett, however, was awful. He posted a 5.23 ERA in 21 starts, was injured for a few weeks, then was gone by August, off to the Dodgers in a salary dumping trade. In 2013, Boston’s #2 man became the dominant Clay Buchholz, and when he was injured, the “freshly returned from Tommy John surgery” John Lackey – an enormous improvement.
The Jays 1/2 punch was supposed to be formidable, with the power arm of Brandon Morrow sliding in behind the knuckleball throwing Dickey. But like Beckett for Boston the year before, Morrow was abysmal. He made only 10 starts and posted a 5.63 ERA and 1.49 WHIP before succumbing to a season ending injury in mid-May. If he can overcome his injury issues and put in a full season? Just imagine.
Point 4 – The Rest of the Rotation
Pitching wins championships, and the Red Sox were terrible in 2012. In terms of games started, the top-3 consisted of Lester, Buchholz, and Felix Doubront, and all three were below league average with ERA’s over 4.50. The rest of the rotation? A complete disaster. Below are the other Red Sox pitchers who made at least 10 starts in 2012:
Josh Beckett – 21 starts, 5.23 ERA
Aaron Cook – 18 starts, 5.65 ERA
Daisuke Matsuzaka – 11 starts, 8.28 ERA
Daniel Bard – 10 starts, 6.22 ERA
In 2013, Lester, Buchholz, and Doubront all improved back to their career norms, and they were joined by Ryan Dempster (29 starts, 4.57 ERA), a healthy John Lackey (29 starts, 3.52 ERA), and trade deadline acquisition Jake Peavy (10 starts, 4.04 ERA), to create a vastly better rotation.
Last season, Toronto’s top-3 in terms of starts were Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and J.A. Happ, each of whom posted an ERA above 4.00, and well worse than league average. The remaining pitchers with 10 starts? Not good:
Josh Johnson – 16 starts, 6.20 ERA
Todd Redmond – 14 starts, 4.32 ERA
Esmil Rogers – 20 starts, 4.77 ERA
Morrow – 10 starts, 5.63 ERA
Unlike the Red Sox, Toronto doesn’t have anybody returning from major injury (aside from the unproven Kyle Drabek), but the point is the same – any improvement from the bottom of the rotation will go a long way.
Point 5 – Key Player Letdowns
Outside of their offensive core, the 2012 Boston Red Sox were counting on huge years from two key, and very highly paid, offensive stars: Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Sadly for them, both flopped. Crawford only played 23 games due to a variety of injuries, and Gonzalez hit a mere 15 home runs – far, far below expectations. Both were gone, along with Beckett, in the massive trade with LA.
In 2013, the players Boston brought in to replace those stars all had much lower expectations, yet each met or exceeded them.
Let’s see, were there two players expected to have huge offensive years for the Jays in 2013, only to badly disappoint? How about Brett Lawrie and Melky Cabrera? Lawrie was pegged by many to be baseball’s breakout star, but injury and poor performance saw him finish with only 107 games played and a .712 OPS. The Jays bet big that Melky could capture his pre-PED form, but injury slowed him down to the tune of 3 HR and a .682 OPS in only 88 games.
Heading into 2013 the expectations for each will be lowered, and if each can meet or exceed them, good things should happen.
As demonstrated above, the 2012 Red Sox and 2013 Jays were a lot more alike than most may think. Both had injury problems, regression by many key players, and awful pitching.
But last season, the Red Sox saw most of their players return to their career norms. In addition, they brought in seven aging and injury prone players on the downside of their careers and saw all of them meet or exceed expectations. Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli, David Ross, and Jonny Gomes provided good defense and solid offense, Ryan Dempster was a solid #4 or #5 starter, and Koji Uehara proved to be a dynamo in the bullpen.
With the talent level already on the Blue Jays roster, with the return to health of guys like Bautista, Rasmus, Reyes, Lawrie, Morrow, and Cabrera, and with the return of the good R.A. Dickey, the Jays don’t necessarily need to add a marquee free agent like Cano, Garza, or Tanaka. Instead, they could look at lesser guys to help at 2B and C (Mark Ellis? Kurt Suzuki?). Because as Boston proved last year, it’s not about the names that are brought in. It’s about what they do when they get there.
Granted, those are a lot of “if’s” that Toronto must overcome, so it won’t be shocking to see most pundits pick them at or near the bottom of the division again.
But it wasn’t long ago that the Boston Red Sox were the team that had a lot of “if’s” to overcome, and were picked by most pundits to finish at or near the bottom of the division.
So have some faith Jays fans.
If Boston can do it, why not us?